Jeff Jacobs: Childhood memories of when Providence ruled college basketball in the East

Photo of Jeff Jacobs
Peter Slom, boyhood friend of Jeff Jacobs, sitting on the lap of John Thompson.

Peter Slom, boyhood friend of Jeff Jacobs, sitting on the lap of John Thompson.

Submitted / Jeff Jacobs

They were the biggest names in the smallest state and even now, all these years later, the names are unforgettable.

“Remember when we were growing up in Newport, we all wanted to shoot like Vic Collucci?” said Peter Slom, who sat on John Thompson’s lap as a youngster and later was in Bruce Campbell’s wedding party in New Haven. “Or go to the hoop like Jim Larranaga? Or try a behind-the-back pass like Ernie D?

“Everything was PC. URI was nothing. Brown was nothing. The Providence Journal covered them like they were gods.”

The Red Sox, the Giants, the Celtics, the Bruins — they were to be shared with bigger cities and bigger commonwealths, but the Friars were all ours. When Joe Mullaney took Providence to the NIT Finals in 1960 with Lenny Wilkens before winning the NIT in 1961 with Vin Ernst, Hartford’s Johnny Egan and Jim Hadnot and again in 1963 with John Thompson and future Boston mayor Ray Flynn … it was that same special feeling in Rhode Island that we would have in Connecticut three decades later.

Anything was possible.

“When they won the NIT — there were only 16 teams in the NCAA Tournament in those days — people lined the highway on Route 6 when they came back in the bus,” Slom said. “Hundreds of people would be out there yelling. It was crazy.”

Then along came Jimmy Walker from Roxbury. The world changed for kids my age. Another one of my Newport buddies has an old newspaper clipping of him smiling like a champ as he crowded Walker for an autograph. Bob Ryan, the authority, called Walker the greatest college basketball player in New England history. We worshiped him.

The throne belonged to Holy Cross among the Worcester hills before the small Dominican school off Eaton Street grabbed the crown as the region’s premier basketball school. In seventh grade, I asked my teacher, a Sister of St. Joseph, if she was going to watch the schools play on Channel 12 with Chris Clark calling the game that night.

“Absolutely,” she said, “but we have split allegiances, so we have to separate the sisters on each side of the room.”

Even the nuns were rabid PC fans.

UConn’s game against Providence on Tuesday is at Gampel Pavilion, not the Dunkin’ Donuts Center or even Alumni Hall as it was last week. With COVID-19, there is no crowd. We’ll use the relative quiet to try to relate to younger UConn fans the tradition and passion of PC. Sure, Friars fans have been jealous of UConn’s four national titles and the fact they took their regional crown. Yes, they might be a little fearful of the glory UConn could return to in the next decade.

But one thing is for sure. They’re going to give Dan Hurley hell. Listening to some of the nasty things they yelled at Jim Calhoun, I admit I’ve looked down and said, “There but for the grace of this press credential goes me.”

“Hard-core sports fans,” said Hurley, who knows these boundaries well from coaching at Rhode Island. “They’re very boisterous and heavily invested. They take their sports, their college basketball, their Red Sox and Celtics very serious to the point, obviously, it gets a little extreme at times. God bless ’em.”

Folks in Western New York know my best friend Jerry Sullivan for many years of tough stands on the Bills and Sabres as columnist at the Buffalo News. Still, Sully never lit up anyone like he lit up Hank Iba in our high school journalism class newspaper for not picking Ernie DiGregorio and Marvin Barnes for the 1972 Olympic team. After the U.S. lost the gold medal game to the USSR, the Soviets came over for an American tour. Ernie and Marvin kicked their butts. We never forgave Iba.

“You’re from Newport,” Dee Rowe asked me once. “You know Aaron Slom?”

Of course, I did. Everyone in Newport did. He owned a printing business established by Ben Franklin’s brother. Big sportsman. Aaron went to PC and served as the student manager. He befriended Father Begley, long-time athletic director. For Thanksgiving one year, Hadnot couldn’t afford to get back to Oakland to see his family. Mullaney asked Slom if it was OK if he’d come for a holiday meal. Rita Slom, a great Friars mom, loved it.

Hadnot told the other players. They’d come down in the summer for the Jazz Festival. Ernst, Thompson, Egan, Ray Flynn, Bill Blair and his cousin Walker. Dexter Westbrook stayed an entire summer.

“One day in Little League, we didn’t have anyone to umpire,” Slom said. “So Dexter Westbook did it. This 6-7 dude with a chest protector. It was great.”

After they built Alumni Hall in 1955, Aaron Slom got season tickets. He’d bring Pete a couple times a year. Every game was sold out. When they built the Civic Center, Aaron got a whole row of tickets. Pete went all the time. He enrolled at PC. Mike Tranghese, then SID and later Big East commissioner, gave him a job doing stats when he was a freshman.

“Rebounds and missed shots,” Slom said. “I handed my stats to Mike Tranghese. I had Marvin Barnes with like 13 rebounds. He looks at me and goes, ‘I think you might have missed a few. I think he had 16-17.’ I’m like OK. I’m not arguing. It’s my first day on the job.

“Later he said, ‘You might think I’m cheating, but everyone in the country hates Marvin. We’ll go on the road and they’ll give him no rebounds.’ One time, Mike asked us to go on the bus to Seton Hall. I kept stats and had Marvin for 25 points and 20 rebounds. Mike goes, ‘Look at this.’ They had Marvin for nine rebounds.”

After that, he’d occasionally credit a team rebound to Marvin.

Aaron had met John Thompson at the old ESCIT high school tournament in Newport when Thompson played for Archbishop Carroll from Washington, D.C. They talked about PC and it started a lifelong friendship. In those days, the NBA had a territorial draft and the Celtics, only 30 miles away, were interested. That helped.

More than a decade later Aaron spotted Bob Cooper at the Newport Naval Base during all-service all-star games. He blocked a ton of shots.

“My dad asked him what are you going to do? Cooper said I’m getting out of the service next year,” Slom said. “He called Dave Gavitt right away and he came down the next night.”

Pete calls PC’s double-overtime victory over No. 1 Michigan on Dec. 29, 1976, in the Industrial National Classic the greatest Friars game ever. Sully and I were there, home on Christmas break from Mizzou. It was nuts. I just had my wisdom teeth pulled and was drugged up. Sully drove. Cooper blocked 10 shots. Soup Campbell had 25 points, and Joey Hassett had 21. Slom worked the scorebook.

He ranks PC’s 61-59 win over North Carolina in February 1978 at No. 2. It came amid the worst blizzard in state history. Aaron and Pete couldn’t drive from Newport. They caught the train in Kingston to get there.

No. 1 team: the 1972-73 Final Four team with Ernie and Marvin: “PC would have won the national championship if Marvin didn’t get hurt against Memphis State. They would have beaten Bill Walton and UCLA for sure. Not really, but I wanted to be quoted that they would.”

No. 2: The 64-65 team with Walker, Westbrook, Benedict, Blair and Mike Riordan. Got ranked as high as No. 4 before losing to Bill Bradley in the Elite Eight.

“No 3: the 1987 Final Four team,” Slom said. “Complete overachievers. Billy Donovan looked like a chubby CYO player when he got there. First year or two of the 3-pointer and Pitino used it brilliantly.”

The best player: Walker. His favorite: Ernie D.

“PC had some bad years,” he said. “They had some bad coaches. They got Rick Pitino and they were great and went to the Final Four. That brought us back. Rick Barnes came in and we won the Big East once (1994). I know. UConn has won it 100 times. We hung in there and got to the Elite Eight with Pete Gillen in 1998.

“Pete was notorious for following the NCAA rules to the letter. Corey Wright would tell me stories. He said Calhoun was recruiting him and asked him why would you want to go to Providence? You’re going to take Western Civ. You’re going to sit in a class for two years straight, five days a week talking religion and philosophy … Meanwhile, other schools were eating at steakhouses and Pete Gillen was so worried about the NCAA they’d stop at Dunkin Donuts on the way back from UConn.”

I ask what burns him about UConn.

“The fans act like they’ve got this long tradition that goes back 100 years,” he said. “Calhoun came in, got the ball rolling and just kept going. There certainly is some jealousy here. But it’s not like they’ve crushed us every time they played us. Calhoun flipped out about Ryan Gomes. Talking about being sensitive. Come on, pal. Of course, when he got in trouble he pooh-poohed it. It wasn’t really that bad. For years they could have been dancing around the edge. For the most part, PC has been a pretty clean program. Of course, Marvin Barnes alone had enough issues to spread urban legend.

“I’d like to say I’d like to see UConn fall on their face, but I think those days are over, gone with Calhoun being arrogant. They have great teams and good guys. I’m glad they’re back in the Big East. They should be in it. The idea they were this fake-ass football school. Who cares about UConn football?”; @jeffjacobs123